There are some subjects that hit squarely at the heart of what it means to be American. Immigration is one of those, illuminating some of the best of what America has achieved in its history and sometimes reminding us of the worst impulses.
In recent days, the struggles to manage a surge of refugees at the US-Mexico border has provided a useful tool for Republicans looking to condemn President Biden and shift focus from insurrection, voter suppression and mass shootings. The overcrowding in border facilities and the reluctance of the Biden Administration to give reporters access to judge for themselves provided fuel to their fire.
But all the chatter about what to call what was happening—Is it a crisis? An emergency? A Biden blunder?—rings hollow to me. It has an amnesiac air, as if we hadn’t just lived through more than four degrading years that began with vile assertions that Mexican migrants are rapists and criminals, continued with tearing babies from families and then losing them, whipping up hysteria before the 2018 mid-terms about dangerous caravans, and a non-stop verbal assault to dehumanize families and desperate refugees seeking to escape poverty and persecution, violence and more.
Let’s not forget: Cruelty was the goal. Calling asylum-seeking immigrants “animals” and describing the influx as an infestation was all part of the effort to justify the sub-human treatment. Given the constant scapegoating and inhumanity, do you even remember that Health and Human Services reported in 2019 thousands of cases of sexual abuse suffered by unaccompanied migrant minors?
Yes, team Biden has a real problem on its hands with some 15,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at the border in January and February. Journalists have a responsibility to report clearly on the dangers they are facing and the failures that need fixing. The administration was wrong to limit access.
But what I hear from the administration is genuine talk about the realities that push these children and others to leave their home countries, the need to address the underlying causes that drive the numbers and the desire to find solutions.
In the last month, Biden has sought to reunite families separated at the border, probe humanitarian issues and review Trump policies affecting undocumented essential workers and others. “Securing our borders does not require us to ignore the humanity of those who seek to cross them,” Biden wrote in an executive order reversing the unaccompanied minor policy and planning an overall review of federal immigration procedures.
Few Americans need to dig deeply to find touching tales of immigrant triumph in their own families. The extraordinary cultural diversity and economic drive that has defined the country emanates from the unmatched infusion of people from around the world seeking a better life and willing to work hard to make it happen. It’s easy to make a list of immigrant over-achievers, past and present: Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Sergei Brin, Madeleine Albright, Natalie Portman—to name a few.
The presence of immigrants makes us all richer—economically and culturally—a fact painfully drowned out by years of open hostility toward refugees and policies to curtail immigration. Immigrants start companies at twice the rate of people born in America. Almost half the companies in the Fortune 500 were started by immigrants or their children. Life would be poorer in a world where I couldn’t find a taco truck or kebab shop, meet up with friends for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, or hear the poetry of different languages walking around New York or LA.
Still, with tragically reliable repetition, in wave after wave, Americans have viewed new arrivals as enemies, especially in tough times. (It’s hard to overstate the twisted irony of this, given the violence American settlers employed to take over land from Native Americans.) As author Roger Daniels wrote in his book, Coming to America, “When most Americans are generally united and feel confident about the future, they seem to be more willing to share that future with foreigners; conversely when they are divided and lack confidence in the future, nativism is more likely to triumph.”
Consider the words of the chief author of the Immigration Act of 1924, which dramatically cut the number of entrants from any one country that was not already in the US and was signed into law by Calvin Coolidge. “Our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood,” said Congressman Albert Johnson. “The United States is our land…The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the days of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.” That act kept open the door to Germans, Brits, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians—and sought to keep out newly arriving Eastern and Southern Europeans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia and Italy (seen as non-white), as well as excluded people from Asia.
The shameful xenophobia and racism of the last four years has been a grim reminder of how far America still must travel to achieve a version of its better self. We have a duty not to let the horrors of this tragedy fade away. But, amid these continuing struggles, it would be a mistake to miss the promising sounds of this new chapter as the nation’s leading empath works to fix what’s broken.
Here’s President Biden in the closing minutes of his press conference on Thursday:
“It’s not like [people say] ‘I’ve got a great idea, let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote, have them take our kids across the border, into the desert where they don’t speak the language. Won’t that be fun? Let’s go.’ That’s not how it happens. People don’t want to leave.
"When my great-grandfather got in a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was, was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave. But they had no choice.”